sci.lang.japan FAQ / 6. Word meanings

6.7. What is Yamato kotoba?

Due to its history of adopting a written language and many aspects of its culture from China, Japanese has a huge number of loan words from Chinese. The Japanese have also invented many pseudo-Chinese words. Since the sixteenth century, they have also adopted many loan words from English (see 5. Japanese and English) and other languages (see 4. Words from other languages), called gairaigo (外来語).

The word Yamato kotoba (大和言葉), also known as wago (和語), means Japanese words which are not Chinese, pseudo-Chinese, or other foreign loan words. Yamato is an ancient name for Japan (see 3.5. What are the names of Japan?) and yamato kotoba implies the ancient Japanese language without any loan words, as opposed to kango (漢語), Chinese-based words, or gairaigo (外来語), words taken from other languages such as English, Dutch, or Portuguese (see 4.4. Which Japanese words come from Dutch?, 4.2. Which Japanese words come from Portuguese?).

Words like akai, "red", or Yamamoto, a surname, are typical "Yamato kotoba". Words like shouyu (醤油), "soy sauce", or kousokudouro (高速道路), "motorway", which have long vowels and youon (see 7.8. What is ?), small ya, yu or yo kana, are typical kango.

This division of Japanese into yamato kotoba and Chinese-derived kango is somewhat similar to the division of English words into Anglo-Saxon and Latin-derived words.

Characteristics of Yamato kotoba include